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Martha Burk Headshot

Saudi Women Deserve a Sporting Chance

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This week marks the five-month countdown to the 39th anniversary of Title IX, the law prohibiting discrimination in educational programs receiving federal tax dollars, including sports.

Every year the secretary of education and countless women's organizations commemorate the anniversary with praise for the program's success, citing many impressive statistics. Since 1972 when the law passed, female participation in sports at NCAA member institutions has increased six-fold. At the high school level it's even better -- girls' participation has increased ten-fold.

We know challenges remain, as opponents of women's rights still claim Title IX robs men of opportunity and causes schools to drop men's sports teams altogether. The truth of the matter is that men's football (is there any other kind?) starves both women's teams and lesser "valued" men's teams. So women's advocates have to remain vigilant, and force our government to enforce Title IX.

But we can do better.

This year I want to lay down a challenge to every advocate, every group, and the government itself to go beyond proclamations and statistics. It's five months until the anniversary, and that's enough time to craft a a campaign and celebrate a true victory -- one that will make a difference around the globe. Success will send a message of equality to women still in burquas, still under the dominance of governments and religions alike that don't recognize females as full citizens of the world.

As the old saw goes, we need to get the International Olympic Committee (I.O.C.) to put it's money where it's mouth is when it comes to women and sports. The Olympic charter states flatly that "the practice of sport is a human right," and "any form of discrimination with regard to a country or a person on grounds of race, religion, politics, gender or otherwise is incompatible with belonging to the Olympic movement."

That's a very clear statement -- and the I.O.C. has backed it up before. The committee banned South Africa from the Olympic movement in 1970 over the country's racial apartheid, and maintained the ban until 1992.

But oh my -- how times have changed. In response to a New York Times inquiry last November about why Saudi Arabia is still allowed to ban female athletes, spokeswoman Emmanuelle Moreau exposed the organization's double standard. Underscoring that the I.O.C. does not consider gender apartheid in sports on a par with racial apartheid, she said "the I.O.C. does not give ultimatums or deadlines but rather believes a lot can be accomplished through dialogue."

Meanwhile, Saudi women's sports advocates are using the U.S. Title IX example to argue for change -- and we need to give them a boost. If the I.O.C. were to adhere to its charter and ban Saudi Arabia from the Olympic games until it recognizes the human rights of women to participate, it would fast-forward progress and make a statement to the world that females are in fact equal citizens. No country can exclude athletes on the basis of race. It should be the same for gender.

What can the U.S. do? For starters, our lawmakers can weigh in. The United States Olympic Committee (USOC) is chartered by Congress, meaning Congress has oversight. Hearings have been held in the past calling leaders on the carpet for poor management, possible corruption, and medal awards. Why not lean on the USOC to make it's voice heard regarding the I.O.C.'s tolerance of gender apartheid? If the U.S. leads the way, other countries are bound to speak out. (The I.O.C. doesn't have to listen, but bad publicity and world pressure have worked before.)

As the women who got Title IX passed 39 years ago know, it took pushing every button they could find -- legal, political, and moral. What better way to commemorate the anniversary than with congressional hearings and a media campaign to change the outcomes for Saudi women -- and their sisters worldwide in the bargain.

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